Meet the candidates looking to make an impact in this year’s historic mayoral election.
By Andy East; photos by Dustin Meyer
It is election season and the times, they are a-changing. On Nov. 4, Austinites will go to the ballot box with the opportunity to define the future of the Live Music Capital, as the city implements 10-ONE, a sweeping overhaul of its municipal government, approved by voters in 2012. With the historic election just around the corner, ATX Man sat down with the five mayoral candidates to discuss their vision for the city and how to tackle its most pressing challenges.
The floodgates are open, and dozens of candidates have thrown their hats into the ring for the upcoming municipal election on Nov. 4. Currently, the mayor and six city council members are elected citywide and preside over Austin’s municipal government. But in 2012, Austin voters approved two propositions that are sure to reshape the city’s political landscape, not only in the upcoming election, but also for years to come.
The first, Proposition 3, also known as 10-ONE, divides Austin into 10 districts with one council member representing each district, adding an additional four seats to the city council. Instead of being elected citywide, council members will now only be elected by voters in the district in which the candidate lives, but the mayor will still be elected citywide. Half of the city council will be up for re-election every two years and council members elected this year will draw lots to see who will serve truncated two-year terms to allow for a mid-term city council election in 2016.
However, starting in 2016, every council member elected will serve a four-year term. The other game changer in the upcoming election, known as Proposition 2, moves city council elections from May to November of even-numbered years to coincide with state and federal elections. Since only about 10 percent of registered voters participated in the 2012 re-election of Mayor Lee Leffingwell, one of the aims of Proposition 2 is to boost civic participation.
Proposition 2 also increases mayoral and councilmember terms from three to four years and sets a limit of two terms in office. Besides the structural overhaul of the city council, there are also plenty of new names and faces entering the races. Four current city council members and Mayor Leffingwell are term-limited and cannot seek reelection, potentially opening the door for major changes at City Hall.
With 10 city council seats and mayor up for grabs, the race for 301 W. Second St. is on, and ATX Man invites you to check out how Austin’s mayoral candidates are stacking up.
Steve Adler came to Austin in 1978 to attend the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. Since graduating in 1982, Adler has practiced civil rights and employment-discrimination law, representing minorities and women in federal and state courts. In 1983, Adler co-founded Barron and Adler LLP, and has represented Texas landowners in a variety of cases against all levels of government and large companies looking to expropriate their land.
Adler also spent eight years as the chief of staff and general counsel for State Senator Eliot Shapleigh (29th Senatorial District, El Paso County) and has served as a board member for The Long Center for the Performing Arts, Girls Empowerment Network (GENaustin) and The Texas Tribune. Adler is currently a partner at Barron and Adler, a board member at Breakthrough Austin and the Austin regional board chair of the Anti-Defamation League.
“There’s a soul and spirit to Austin. [If ] you go anywhere in the country and say you’re from Austin, it means something to people,” Adler says. “As wonderful as so many things are about Austin, there are challenges that we face that are pretty serious and are longstanding and unsolved. My sense is that Austin is at a tipping point and we need to actually solve these issues if we’re going to be able to move forward. We have to share the benefits of the growth we’re having, and I want to help.”
Adler’s Take on the Issues
Transportation “We need to focus on things that we can do immediately, like staggered work hours and telecommuting— changes that we can make as a community that would have a real significant and immediate impact on congestion. We need to execute the steps necessary to develop activity centers appropriately scaled so that we no longer send so many people in and out of downtown every day. In the long term, our transportation issues are land-planning and behavior issues as much as anything else. [There are] 2 million people in the greater Austin area, and we are predicted to have 4 million people in 25 years. It’s hard to imagine that many people in Austin without an integrated transportation system that includes roads, rail, trail and transit. We have to give people choices so they don’t have to be in their cars and on the roads or in transportation as much.”
Education “There are few things that impact the quality of life in a city as much as public education, and I think that that needs to be a significant priority area for the mayor. I also think that we are not being fairly funded when the state uses its weights to distribute funding statewide. Austin has a growing population of students in poverty and we have almost twice the state average of bilingual children, and they’re more expensive to educate. The state adjusts for that by using weights in its formula to compensate districts that have more expensive student populations, but those weights are outdated and don’t reflect the true cost of education in Austin, and we need to work to fix that.”
Affordability “We need to return affordability to this city. We’ve gone from being the least expensive city in Texas in which to live to the most expensive city in the state. We need to increase the supply of housing in all types so that we can reach a market equilibrium that doesn’t continue to send housing and rents higher at that pace they have been increasing. We can do this by streamlining and making more efficient and cost effective the permitting process in Austin. We can also do this by opening up more areas for desired development by building out a system of denser activity centers so that there are desired and affordable places to live. We also need to focus on increasing middle-class job opportunities, especially for people who already live here, and increasing the opportunities for training for those middle-class jobs.”
Visit adlerforaustin.com for more information about Adler and his campaign.
A native of Rockdale, Texas, Mike Martinez originally moved to Austin in 1988 to become a musician. Although Martinez never hit the big time, he did get a job in construction before landing a job in 1992 as a firefighter in East Austin. Within a couple years of firefighting, Martinez became increasingly involved in the firefighting community, serving as the vice president of the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters and secretary and treasurer of the Texas Association of Hispanic Firefighters.
In 2004, he became the president of the Austin Firefighters Association and was then elected to the city council in 2006. Martinez is also a former board member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas. He currently serves as the chairman of the board of Capital Metro and is in his third term on the city council.
“I’m a public servant and I started my career as an Austin firefighter. I think that experience and having been on the council, serving and protecting people is what has positioned me well to run for mayor and become Austin’s next mayor. I want to [be mayor]because it’s important. It matters to a lot of people,” Martinez says. “My service in office has been very clear that it’s about those who need it most. I fundamentally believe that most folks don’t have time to come down to city council and sit around for 12 to 14 hours to be given three minutes to speak. So they need elected officials that understand the issues they are facing and that represent them, and that is exactly what I’ve done as a council member, that’s exactly what I experienced as a firefighter working in the poorest neighborhoods of Austin and knowing the issues that our most vulnerable citizens face.”
Martinez’s Take on the Issues
Transportation “[Transportation] is arguably the biggest problem that we face as a community, from an economic and quality-of-life standpoint, to an environmental standpoint. It touches on all of those issues. But it’s more than just public transportation. It’s about a multi-modal transit system. I believe we have to get to the point to where if you want to live in Austin and not own a car, you should be able to do that with minimal inconvenience. We are a major city and metropolitan area. We have to understand that congestion and traffic are just going to be a part of our lives until we start choosing alternative modes of transportation. As mayor, I will continue my efforts on improving transportation in all modes, from sidewalk connectivity and improved roadways, to high-capacity transit, which I believe really will make a big difference. That’s why I will be supporting the mobility bond package this November because I think it will make a difference and will set the tone to where we’re headed for the next 20 to 30 years.”
Education “I have made a proposal that the mayor and the city council take a more proactive role in our children’s education. I don’t think we should be school board members. I don’t believe that we should make decisions that are under the purview of our AISD trustees, but I firmly believe that our local government should be ready and willing to help our school district whenever they need it. There is a joint county, AISD and city committee on education, and it contains the mayor, councilmembers, the school board president, school board members, the county judge and county commissioners. In my opinion, it is arguably the most powerful committee in our community, yet it is the most underutilized, and the public has little knowledge of it. Those individual members should take policy initiatives back to their respective bodies and push those policies forward.”
Economic Development “I have a different term [for economic development]. We need economic equality. When you create economic equality, the economic development component happens organically. I think what we have been doing—providing tax incentives and rebates to companies that want to move here—is artificially inflating the economy. We need economic equity so that whether you have a business that employs five people or 5,000, you get the same treatment from the City of Austin because you are part of the economy. Most Austinites work for small companies, yet none of those small businesses receive tax breaks or incentives. We must do everything we can to change our economic development policies from this trickle-down mentality, to building the base of small businesses and making sure they are the highest priority as it relates to economic development.”
Visit mike4mayor.com for more information about Martinez and his campaign.
Originally from Oklahoma, Randall Stephens came to Texas in 1987 and has lived in Austin since 2002. Stephens spent five years on active duty with the Air Force and was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, rising in rank to staff sergeant. After his stint in the Air Force, Stephens joined the Air National Guard before working for American Airlines as an airplane technician. Stephens is the founder and CEO of AdBirds, an Austin-based online advertising company. He is also a registered international aircraft and parts broker, once selling a supersonic transport plane on eBay.
“Entering public life at some point in my career has been a bucket-list item for a long time. I’m at a point in life where I think I can bring experiences I’ve had both as an employee in a very large and dynamic business, and as an owner and employer in a small business, which I’ve done concurrently. I think I can balance the interests of various groups and subgroups within the community, and bring my experience to bear in making decisions,” Stephens says.
Stephens’ Take on the Issues
Transportation “I would lobby the Legislature and TxDOT heavily to speed up the elimination of stoplights and choke points on our freeways. Those aren’t city streets, but I think mayors can be pretty influential if they put their mind to it. The urban-rail activists and Project Connect have a plan, but it is a very expensive plan. If the current rail plan being proposed passes, I’ll do my utmost to make it happen and build it within the vision the taxpayers approved, but I might have done things differently. [But] I believe in rail. I believe you need a certain population density to get approval to build certain rail systems. If I’m elected, I’ll invite mayors from across Texas to Austin for a conference on mobility to look at all the facts as we know them and bring in the financing experts from the industry. I want to advance the notion that House Bill 3588 for tolling as many highways as possible is a failed notion. The best financing model and the fairest user tax is the fuel excise tax. [After the conference], we might be able to influence regional and statewide activists to pressure their legislators to change focus from tolling back to fuel excise tax adjustment.”
Affordability “We have to increase housing units, and if it’s not profitable to increase housing units, it’s going to be very difficult to get companies to do it. So we have to make it less restrictive. We’re going to have to see more affordable apartments and condos in the city. If you regulate business to death, it’s going to leave. It’s going to find easier places to do business.”
Economic Development “I think that the city is doing a great job of attracting businesses and employers. [But] I do see a difference in my philosophy. The city annexed all of these suburban areas and in the last 15 years, there has been a huge amount of growth out [there]. If the city develops its vision for smart growth in [these suburban]areas, it’ll put less future growth pressures on the downtown areas. I’m very interested in helping develop the city and seeing that growth expand in the peripheral regions of the city.”
Visit stephensforaustinmayor.org for more information on Stephens and his campaign.
A native Austinite, Todd Phelps is a musician and founder of Texas wind-energy company Phelps and Ray LLC. Phelps has also done consulting work in the health-care and agricultural industries. He is involved with several environmental projects in the Austin area that include non-GMO-farming and clean-air and -water initiatives. Phelps is also a BMI recording artist, a member of the Screen Actors Guild and has worked with injured soldiers through Salute America’s Heroes, Operation Finally Home and the Fisher House.
“I grew up here and I absolutely love this town. Due to some poor planning, it’s starting to struggle to keep its soul. I’ve been encouraged by my friends and colleagues to step in and [run for mayor]after some discussion,” Phelps says. “I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that Austin retains its soul under the strain that has been put upon it by the mass influx of folks, which, when they come here, need to be able to enjoy the same blessings of Austin that I’ve always had, and I want to ensure that opportunity and enjoyment of what makes Austin Austin is sustained.”
Phelps’ Take on the Issues
Transportation “We’re in this problem because of poor planning on behalf of the council and city historically. Firstly, to solve it, all of the above. Some people call it ‘multi-modal.’ I’m calling it ‘all of the above’ because there are some more aspects that should be included. Some things that we can do immediately are green-light rideshares. It’s been blocked for over two years, and what’s going on is not enough in regards to rideshare. We need to tackle immediately the bottlenecks with continuous-flow intersections and we need to be smart about whatever public-transit system we decide on as far as route, practicality and logic. I would like to see something that is 21st century in nature, not 19th century in nature. Once again, I stress ‘all of the above.’ I am not opposed to any solution. I just want to emphasize that people need to put the proper amount of thought into what we implement. It’s a quality-of-life crisis where so many people spend so many hours in their car that we’ll eventually suffer economically because of it.”
Affordability “This is another crisis issue. Just take, for instance, the St. John’s Food Pantry had to shut its doors [in July]due to rent being too high. We need to tackle this head-on. I’m going to fight to lower property taxes as much as humanly possible in every way I can and be a loud voice to offer native Austinites and anyone who comes here the lowest property taxes I possibly can. We’ve got gentrification that has changed the landscape of East Austin to where it’s becoming unrecognizable culturally, and that’s not the Austin I want to see. Quite honestly, it is in every neighborhood. It doesn’t matter. It has strained the working-class folk of every culture and ethnicity of this town, and it is causing flight north and south of Austin just so that people can afford to live.”
Water “Water, in addition to traffic, is at a crisis level. We need to plan as much for the future as possible. In addition to the fact that we have the hedge with the [Lower Colorado River Authority] and we own the deepest piece of real estate in Lake Travis, we need to plan ahead in as many ways as possible and be as diligent and creative as possible in working with all future sources for water.”
Visit toddphelpsforaustin.com for more information on Phelps and his campaign.
An Austin resident for more than 25 years, Cole is a lawyer and the first African-American woman to be elected to the city council. Currently, Cole is in her third term on the city council, serving as mayor pro tem. After graduating with a degree in accounting from the University of Texas at Austin in 1986, Cole became a certified public accountant and worked for Ernst & Young before returning to UT to study law, graduating in 1991.
Cole then practiced law at Wright & Greenhill, and in 1995, became staff counsel at the Texas Municipal League. Cole has also served on the boards of Leadership Austin, Austin Area Urban League and Communities in Schools. She was tri-chair of the 2004 AISD Citizen Bond Committee, and made her initial forays into politics as PTA president of Lee Elementary School.
“I was a PTA president because of when I went to register my nephew for school, the teacher, in response to my nervousness—probably extreme nervousness—told me, ‘We got him, Miss Cole,’ and it made a big difference in my life in terms of what I thought government should do in its responsiveness, regardless of if it is the employees, the principal or the governing body,” Cole says.
“I want to run [for mayor]because Austin has been good to me, because I’ve been blessed. My husband, Kevin, and I have been blessed and we want to pay the debt forward and nurture, preserve and protect our community. I want to serve to give back to the community.”
Cole’s Take on the Issues
Transportation “Transportation is a major issue facing the city. We have a 50-year problem that we simply can’t fix in short order. We can’t build our way out of congestion. We need multiple transit options. That includes roads and rail [as well as]bicycle and pedestrian modals. All of the options need to be on the table.”
Education “There’s no doubt that education is fundamental to employment opportunities and the basic vehicle for closing the gap between our two Austins: an Austin that is very prosperous and an Austin that is severely challenged with high student dropout, teenage pregnancy and a disproportionate number of minorities in the penal system. I was a PTA president. I’ve seen firsthand the needs of the school system from a teacher’s perspective, a parent’s perspective and also from an administrative perspective. I believe the city and the schools must make a commitment together to address many of these concerns, such as joint facilities and joint social-service programs. We’ve seen state government abandon us in its commitment to basic education needs. I think that the mayor has a role to play in being a champion for the schools.”
Affordability “I think we have to be very cautious about property-tax rates and the appraisal system. We have an increased demand for housing set by the market that outpaces the supply. We have to respect the character of our neighborhoods and at the same time promote density along our transit corridors and downtown, where we already have the infrastructure. We need to make significant changes to our land-development code to decrease the cost of housing. We have adopted a comprehensive plan that is in its early stages that has specific proposals to promote affordability as that process moves forward.”
Visit facebook.com/sherylforaustin for more information on Cole and updates on her campaign.
- 2014 City of Austin Mayoral Candidate Debate Alamo Drafthouse, South Lamar Sept. 3 at 4:30 p.m.
- Deadline to register to vote Oct. 6
- First day of early voting by personal appearance Oct. 20
- Election day Nov. 4